Bryan Caplan at Wall Street Journal:
Amid the Father’s Day festivities, many of us are privately asking a Scroogely question: “Having kids—what’s in it for me?” An economic perspective on happiness, nature and nurture provides an answer: Parents’ sacrifice is much smaller than it looks, and much larger than it has to be.
Most of us believe that kids used to be a valuable economic asset. They worked the farm, and supported you in retirement. In the modern world, the story goes, the economic benefits of having kids seem to have faded away. While parents today make massive personal and financial sacrifices, children barely reciprocate. When they’re young, kids monopolize the remote and complain about the food, but do little to help around the house; when you’re old, kids forget to return your calls and ignore your advice, but take it for granted that you’ll continue to pay your own bills.
Many conclude that if you value your happiness and spending money, the only way to win the modern parenting game is not to play. Low fertility looks like a sign that we’ve finally grasped the winning strategy. In almost all developed nations, the total fertility rate—the number of children the average woman can expect to have in her lifetime—is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children. (The U.S. is a bit of an outlier, with a rate just around replacement.) Empirical happiness research seems to validate this pessimism about parenting: All else equal, people with kids are indeed less happy than people without.
A closer look at the General Social Survey also reveals that child No. 1 does almost all the damage. Otherwise identical people with one child instead of none are 5.6 percentage points less likely to be very happy. Beyond that, additional children are almost a happiness free lunch. Each child after the first reduces your probability of being very happy by a mere .6 percentage points.
Happiness researchers also neglect a plausible competing measure of kids’ impact on parents’ lives: customer satisfaction. If you want to know whether consumers are getting a good deal, it’s worth asking, “If you had to do it over again, would you make the same decision?” The only high-quality study of parents’ satisfaction dates back to a nation-wide survey of about 1,400 parents by the Research Analysis Corp. in 1976, but its results were stark: When asked, “If you had it to do over again, would you or would you not have children?” 91% of parents said yes, and only 7% expressed buyer’s remorse.
You might think that everyone rationalizes whatever decision they happened to make, but a 2003 Gallup poll found that wasn’t true. When asked, “If you had to do it over again, how many children would you have, or would you not have any at all?” 24% of childless adults over the age of 40 wanted to be child-free the second time around, and only 5% more were undecided. While you could protest that childlessness isn’t always a choice, it’s also true that many pregnancies are unplanned. Bad luck should depress the customer satisfaction of both groups, but parenthood wins hands down.
The main problem with parenting pessimists, though, is that they assume there’s no acceptable way to make parenting less work and more fun. Parents may feel like their pressure, encouragement, money and time are all that stands between their kids and failure. But decades’ worth of twin and adoption research says the opposite: Parents have a lot more room to safely maneuver than they realize, because the long-run effects of parenting on children’s outcomes are much smaller than they look.
Think about everything parents want for their children. The traits most parents hope for show family resemblance: If you’re healthy, smart, happy, educated, rich, righteous or appreciative, the same tends to be true for your parents, siblings and children. Of course, it’s difficult to tell nature from nurture. To disentangle the two, researchers known as behavioral geneticists have focused on two kinds of families: those with twins, and those that adopt. If identical twins show a stronger resemblance than fraternal twins, the reason is probably nature. If adoptees show any resemblance to the families that raised them, the reason is probably nurture.
Parents try to instill healthy habits that last a lifetime. But the two best behavioral genetic studies of life expectancy—one of 6,000 Danish twins born between 1870 and 1900, the other of 9,000 Swedish twins born between 1886 and 1925—found zero effect of upbringing. Twin studies of height, weight and even teeth reach similar conclusions. This doesn’t mean that diet, exercise and tooth-brushing don’t matter—just that parental pressure to eat right, exercise and brush your teeth after meals fails to win children’s hearts and minds.
Parents also strive to turn their children into smart and happy adults, but behavioral geneticists find little or no evidence that their effort pays off. In research including hundreds of twins who were raised apart, identical twins turn out to be much more alike in intelligence and happiness than fraternal twins, but twins raised together are barely more alike than twins raised apart. In fact, pioneering research by University of Minnesota psychologist David Lykken found that twins raised apart were more alike in happiness than twins raised together. Maybe it’s just a fluke, but it suggests that growing up together inspires people to differentiate themselves; if he’s the happy one, I’ll be the malcontent.
David Mills at First Things:
“Many conclude that if you value your happiness and spending money, the only way to win the modern parenting game is not to play. Low fertility looks like a sign that we’ve finally grasped the winning strategy,” writes Bryan Caplan in The Breeder’s Cup, published in The Wall Street Journal‘s weekend edition. Readers will remember the widely promoted study of a few years ago declaring that having children made parents less happy or, depending on the writer, outright unhappy.
In yet another example of the mainline press picking up on what our own David Goldman had been saying for years in his Spengler columns (search “demography” and “population”) and in Demographics and Depression, Caplan argues that the studies we have show that this equation of limited families with the good life is wrong. After challenging the study I just mentioned, he writes:
Happiness researchers also neglect a plausible competing measure of kids’ impact on parents’ lives: customer satisfaction. If you want to know whether consumers are getting a good deal, it’s worth asking, “If you had to do it over again, would you make the same decision?”
The only high-quality study of parents’ satisfaction dates back to a nation-wide survey of about 1,400 parents by the Research Analysis Corp. in 1976, but its results were stark: When asked, “If you had it to do over again, would you or would you not have children?” 91% of parents said yes, and only 7% expressed buyer’s remorse.
You might think that everyone rationalizes whatever decision they happened to make, but a 2003 Gallup poll found that wasn’t true. When asked, “If you had to do it over again, how many children would you have, or would you not have any at all?” 24% of childless adults over the age of 40 wanted to be child-free the second time around, and only 5% more were undecided.
While you could protest that childlessness isn’t always a choice, it’s also true that many pregnancies are unplanned. Bad luck should depress the customer satisfaction of both groups, but parenthood wins hands down.
He goes on to argue that parents could make themselves happier, but his reason is a little uncomfortable: “the long-run effects of parenting on children’s outcomes are much smaller than they look.”
For Caplan, you start with what economists think, then see what voters think and then chalk up the difference as evidence as irrationality. He, in accordance with this general faith in what economists think, proposes all sorts of reforms that would take decision making power out of the hands of the public and into the hands of economists, like giving the Council of Economic Advisors “the power to invalidate legislation as ‘uneconomical,’” and giving college graduates an extra vote.
The problem for Caplan is that economists generally agree that voters are rational and that insomuch as voters are misinformed, it tends to cancel itself out. So, Caplan has to make a further argument for why we should trust economists on policy issues, but why we should ignore their collective judgment on whether or not voters are rational.
He seems to have pulled this trick again in regard to his arguments for why, despite the rather robust finding in happiness research that having kids decreases reported happiness, people should have lots of kids. And, to take this argument even further, that they should have kids for selfish reasons; they should do so for themselves. Now, he makes some arguments for why this research need not lead to non-fertile outcomes and why the stuff that leads to the negative happiness effects due to having kids isn’t all that useful or important, but we are still left with another case where Caplan is making a significant, contestable point that is at odds with what economists’ think about the issue.
I’m not saying that this is a bad thing in and of itself, but it sure puts Caplan in a weird position where he agrees with economists on everything except the stuff he devotes his time to researching and writing about.
Will Wilkinson at Megan McArdle’s place:
Bryan really struggles with the fact that children tend to have a negative effect on self-reported happiness. (Most economists are dismissive of survey evidence, but, to his credit, Bryan isn’t.) He tries to minimize the damage this finding does to his argument by pointing out that the negative effect is small for the first kid, and even smaller for additional kids. But it remains that if one is trying to maximize happiness, no kids appears to be the best bet and fewer is better than more.
Of course, self-reported happiness is just one dubiously reliable piece of evidence about the effect of kids on well-being. The trouble with Bryan’s strategy in the WSJ essay is that he resorts to even less reliable survey evidence to support his position. He cites polls that show that people tend not to report regrets about having had kids, but that a large majority of those who have not had kids say that would choose to have them if they “had it to do over again.” Now, Darwinian logic suggests that the belief that one would be better off without children will not tend to be widespread. That is, as Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues, we should expect to find conviction in the satisfactions of parenthood to be strong and all-but universal whether or not those convictions reflect the truth. So one would want check them against, say, the self-reported life satisfaction of those with and without children. Or, if one is inclined to think like an economist, one might say “talk is cheap” and check these beliefs against what people actually do.
In that case, what one finds is that increases in average levels of education, levels of disposable income, gender equality, and access to birth control — that is, increases in the ability of people (and especially women) to deliberately control the conditions of their own lives — generally lead people to choose a smaller rather than larger number of children. As far as I can tell, Bryan’s response is that it “lacks perspective” to take at face value this truly striking tendency of choice under conditions of increasing personal control. If Bryan really thinks rising education, wealth, and gender equality have somehow made us worse at evaluating the costs and benefits of children, he probably ought to turn in his economist card.
None of this is to say that there aren’t excellent reasons to have families larger than the relatively small rich-country norm. It’s just that these tend not to be the kinds of reasons economists consider “selfish.”
Razib Khan at Discover:
Being an economist he focuses on rational individual behavior, but I want to point to another issue: group norms. In the left-liberal progressive post-graduate educated circles which I come into contact with in the USA childlessness is not uncommon, and bears no stigma (on the contrary, I hear often of implicit and explicit pressure on graduate students to forgo children for the sake of maximizing labor hour input into research over one’s lifetime from advisors). On the other hand, the norm of a two-child family is also very strong, and going above replacement brings upon you a fair amount of attention. The rationale here is often environmental, more children = more of a carbon footprint. But my friend Gregory Cochran has stated that as an individual who is well above replacement whose social milieu is more conservative that he perceives that more than two children is also perceived as deviant in Middle American society. In other words, the reasoning may differ, but the intuition is the same (in Italy the reasoning mostly involves the cost of raising children from the perspective of parents, both in cash and time).
The numbers in the General Social Survey tell the tale. In 1972 42% of adults had more than 2 children. In 2008 32% did. More relevantly in 1972 47% of adults between the ages of 25 and 45 had more than 2 children. In 2008 the figure for that age group is 27% for those with more than 2 children.
Of course the numbers mix up a lot of different subcultures. One anecdote I’d like to relate is a conversation I had with a secular left-of-center university educated couple. They expressed the aspiration toward 4 children. I asked them out of curiosity about the population control issue, and they looked at me like I was joking. It needs to be mentioned that they weren’t American, rather they were from a Northern European country which seems on the exterior to resemble the United States very much. But it reminds us of the importance of group norms in shaping life choices and expectations, the implicit framework for our explicit choices.
All that goes to my point that Bryan Caplan’s project will be most effective among demographics geared toward prioritizing individual choice, analysis and utility maximization, as opposed to relying upon the wisdom of group norms. Economists, quantitative social science and finance types, libertarians, etc.
Andrew Leonard at Salon:
But that leads us to the truly deranged part of the argument: Caplan believes that we shouldn’t be working so hard to be good parents, because, hey, the quality of our parenting doesn’t really make any difference to how our kids turn out. He cites a few behavioral genetics studies, mostly on sets of twins, that purport to show very little difference in outcomes when children with the same genetic makeup are raised by different parents.
It’s the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free parenting card!
Many find behavioral genetics depressing, but it’s great news for parents and potential parents. If you think that your kids’ future rests in your hands, you’ll probably make many painful “investments” — and feel guilty that you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.
If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you’re not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents’ consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids’ development, so it’s OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family. Riding your kids “for their own good” rarely pays off, and it may hurt how your children feel about you.
So we should have more kids, and spend less time and effort parenting them, and just kick back and enjoy the fruits of our non-labors, presumably generated when our offspring stroke our egos by visiting us in our nursery homes and telling us how cool we were for setting no curfews and letting them play videogames until they keeled over in front of their computers from lack of proper hydration.
I guess I do see a certain libertarian world view integrity here. If you judge modes of political organization from the foundational precept that good government is impossible, then why not also assume that good parenting is, if not impossible, merely useless? If you’re going to dump John Maynard Keynes then why not throw out Dr. Spock as well?
Who knew that lazy permissiveness would become a calling card of libertarian parenting ideology? I’ll concede that there are tendencies towards over-parenting in American culture that verge on the extreme, and could quite possibly be counter-productive. The frantic competition to get your baby into the best pre-school in Manhattan — a struggle that seems to start before the child is even born — may not be the most efficient use of resources. Caplan is certainly right on one point, we should relax more — relaxed parents, I would submit, are better parents. But to leap from that starting point to the contention that our choices have little effect on our children’s development seems, in my own anecdotal understanding of the world, to go too far. Even worse, it smacks of an abdication of responsibility, a surrender to the worst kind of easy rationalization. Good parenting is hard, but even if the differences we are making are only perceivable at the margins, that shouldn’t absolve us from the necessity and pleasure of making any effort at all. It’s not a winning or losing strategy: It’s a way to be in the world.
Tony Woodlief at Megan McArdle’s place:
To be sure, there are too many parents who, despite their children, remain narcissistic nimrods. But the nature of parenting is to beat that out of you. There’s just no time to spend on ourselves, at least not like we would if we didn’t have babies to wash and toys to clean up, usually in the middle of the night, after impaling our feet on them.
People are inherently self-centered, and especially in a peaceful, prosperous society, this easily leads to self-indulgence that in turn can make us weak and ignoble. There’s something to be said for ordeals — like parenting, or marriage, or tending the weak and broken — which push us into an other-orientation. When we have to care for someone, we get better at, well, caring for people. It actually takes practice, after all. I’m still trying to get it right.
I suppose an economist could make this all fit. What I’m really saying, the economist might contend, is that one element of my self-interest, in addition to enjoying a leisurely meal, and plenty of sleep, and the ability to go away on vacations without worrying about who will watch the youngsters, is not becoming (remaining?) a jerk. Kids certainly don’t guarantee that won’t happen, but they help mitigate the risk. And if we conceptualize that self-interest, in turn, as happiness, we’re right back where we started.
But I wonder if the questions would change. Instead of asking parents and non-parents whether they are happy right now, we might ask whether they are becoming more like the people they want to be. And then we might see children not as factors that may or may not be contributing to our happiness, but as opportunities to practice what most of us — perhaps me most of all — need to do more often, which is to put someone else before ourselves.
James Poulos at Ricochet:
The unique thing about children is that, at one and the same time, we both share our identity with them and don’t. In some ways, there’s no one more deeply ‘identical’ than you and your child. But in other ways, of course — marvelously awesome and frustrating ways — there’s no one more deeply different, precisely because your kid’s differences with you are so intimately connected to your own differences with him or her. That’s the amazing foundation of an astonishing kind of relationship. There’s nothing like it. Not even friendship compares.
In our broader relations with at first undifferentiated ‘others’, it makes us happy to develop friendships. There’s something inherent, I think, in the connection between friendship and happiness. A happy society is one where lots and lots of people are friends with each other — where there are ‘thick webs of social trust,’ as an academic might say. And yes, a happy family is one where relations are of a kind we’d describe in popular shorthand as ‘friendly’…but that’s not quite it. That’s not the full story, is it?
Happiness might not be beside the point of life. But the stubborn persistence of family leads me to believe that oftentimes we humans want, maybe desperately, maybe in spite of ourselves, something more than happiness. If we ignore this in our political life, we’re going to wind up with a system of laws and a power structure that cuts against the grain of that powerful human longing. And the costs of that might be very high indeed.
Moreover, I’d argue that the definitions of “happiness” at work here are dubious.
My 17-month-old woke up a few minutes ago and interrupted my writing. She does that kind of thing a lot. Indeed, pretty much every morning. And when she does, I have to stop what I’m doing, usually at an inopportune time. And that makes me unhappy!
Is this momentary inconvenience outweighed by the joy she brings me? Of course.
But having kids means constant diversion from doing what you want to be doing at any given moment. And having multiple children, I’m reliably told, tends to increase that phenomenon geometrically. Indeed, parents the world over agree: Kids are a giant pain in the ass!
Those of us who are reasonably intelligent and had children by conscious decision knew all this going in. Indeed, one of the amusing things about impending first-time fatherhood is the number of people who dispense the advice “It’ll change your life!” But that doesn’t make the sacrifices and trade-offs less real.
While I’m a social scientist by training, I’m not a sociologist, much less steeped in the literature in question here. But I don’t know that it’s possible to develop measures to quantify the thousands of instances of “unhappiness” that come from the annoyances of parenthood and the less frequent but far more potent joys. And I certainly don’t think it’s possible to do it in a way that satisfies an economist’s notion of “happiness.”
UPDATE: Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine